Does aid work?
By Michael Keating
the advent of “complex emergencies” and the rapid
growth of humanitarian aid agencies, it can be easy to lose
sight of the reason for aid: its beneficiaries. Michael Keating
asks the question “Does aid work?” and suggests
a new way of answering it.
It is easy for aid practitioners to forget how young the
whole aid “business” is. One could argue that
development assistance is nothing new, that colonialism was
a form – if not a desirable one – of development
assistance. But as conventionally thought of, aid is little
more than three or four decades old. For many, the Biafra
crisis was the first major emergency aid operation.
Since then, the number of organisations involved in aid has
mushroomed spectacularly. Nowhere is this more true than in
the area of emergencies. The Red Cross flag, once almost alone
among those of operational humanitarian agencies, is now one
of a bewildering multitude hoisted over crisis facilities,
on vehicles and in refugee camps around the world. United
Nations agencies and even donor governments, through their
official bodies, are an increasingly familiar sight in hot
spots – not to mention soldiers in humanitarian guise.
One reason for the growth in players is, of course, that
needs have grown. The number of people needing humanitarian
and emergency assistance has increased, not least in the messy
years since the end of the cold war.
But another less straightforward reason is perhaps the “politicisation”
of humanitarian aid. Many crises have arisen in conflict situations
where the international community has little to offer by way
of enforceable political solutions, and little incentive to
risk the lives of troops to try and impose or keep the peace.
Yet public opinion, alerted by the media, and just common
decency demand that something be done, particularly if thousands
of children and civilians are being slaughtered or their lives
threatened. Time and again, horrendous and heart-rending scenes
on our TV screens challenge our own humanity.
True, there is a lottery aspect as to which crises get the
full blast of media attention. Equally true, the jury is still
out as to whether media exposure actually affects government
policy – whether in the aid field, or indeed in any
other area. Many feel that politicians nowadays have learned
to cope with intense bursts of media-induced public outrage,
knowing that they will blow over, sometimes in a matter of
days, as the “news agenda” moves on. But no Western
government serious about its popular profile can afford to
be seen as totally indifferent to this suffering.
The willingness of increasing numbers of existing and new
aid organisations to respond to these crises has given donor
governments an opportunity which they have seized. They can
dwarf the often amazing generosity of the public with official
funding. By supporting emergency response groups, politicians
can show that they have not been idle, and that they are listening
and reacting to the public’s demand for action.
This may seem to be a somewhat cynical interpretation of
what happens. It is not necessarily to impugn the motivation
of aid workers, most of whom have the noblest sentiments for
doing what they do. But it is to recognise that they are often
just pawns in a larger chess game, and that there is a dynamic
at work fuelled by media exposure of humanitarian needs, politician’s
eagerness to be seen to be doing the right thing, and agencies’
willingness to use the funds made available to swing into
Where do the beneficiaries stand in this dynamic? Can it
be that they are being left out altogether? How can this even
be a possibility when, after all, the beneficiaries are the
raison d’être of the whole aid business
in the first place?
Sometimes it is difficult not to wonder whether beneficiaries
have any say in the often complex process that is unleashed
at times of humanitarian crises. In the early days of aid,
in retrospect, it was all relatively straightforward. Beneficiaries
had a say – through their governments. Governments were
presumed to represent their people. Development assistance
still functions on this premise.
But today, humanitarian crises are usually tied up with conflict,
and often involve governments oppressing sections of their
own citizenry. The conflict may be between rival authorities,
many of which are too weak or corrupt to be credible representatives
of the interests of those whose allegiance they claim. In
these situations, how are interests of the beneficiaries served?
Ultimately, it is the integrity of those providing emergency
assistance that most counts. It is up to them, operating in
a political vacuum or in situations in which no authority
seems to be acting in the interests of those who most need
help, to ensure that the beneficiaries have a say in how they
There is no doubt that, even with the best will in the world,
this is not easy. Is an agency supposed to poll those whom
it has helped to find out what they think? It sounds absurd,
but perhaps there is something to it. Even in emergency situations,
respect and attention to the voice of the local people should
be a prerequisite to humanitarian action intended to help
them. But how many agencies have the systems and take the
trouble to do this?
Does aid work? In the final analysis, the answer to this
question lies with the beneficiaries, and a detailed look
at how their lives have been affected, over time, by aid.
Of course, accountability to donors is fundamental, too. But
whereas accountability to donors receives a lot of attention
and energy, how often is accountability to beneficiaries the
yardstick? And difficult though it may be to measure, how
much effort is put into the measurement?
Too little, would seem to be the answer. In the extraordinary
swirl of events that engulfs many humanitarian crises, the
notion of accountability gets swept aside and does not seem
to feature in donors’, journalists’ or the public’s
perceptions of what is going on. And by the time the crisis
has passed, perhaps only aid academics have an interest in
figuring out what actually happened, and whether lessons could
This may be about to change. Foreign aid budgets are likely
to come under greater scrutiny as money gets tighter and domestic
problems take priority. The public is likely to be increasingly
bewildered by the plethora of actors competing for support
to address problems which their collective efforts seem to
be doing little to mitigate, as one disaster follows another,
often in the same geographical area.
Today, emergency aid seems to be about the expurgation of
political and other complexes in donor countries; in future,
it may be judged by the degree to which it really helps address
or “fix” problems – if only because those
problems are becoming seriously expensive, politically unsettling
and even economically threatening to donor countries.
The question “Does aid work?” will become more
pertinent as the quality of aid becomes the issue. And those
agencies which have most systematised their sensitivity to
those they exist to help, and which can measure the impact
of their work, will be well placed to survive the shake-out
that might then well occur.
Michael Keating is a communication consultant based in London.
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